“Night Beast” by Ruth Joffre

Somnambule, I called her. Somnambule pirouetting in the night. I shivered the first time I found her pressed against me in bed, her cold, insistent fingers working their way under my shirt. My brother had told me that she was a sleepwalker, that sometimes he’d wake up in the middle of the night and have to ease Sydney down off the table or the couch, because she was dancing with her eyes closed and didn’t realize how close her head was to the fan. He hadn’t mentioned the sex or the touching, but he probably hadn’t expected it to be an issue; and of course I didn’t tell him. I thought it would embarrass him. He and Sydney had been dating for three years by then, and he’d started thinking about marriage. He told me in confidence that it was time to either get married or break up. He’d had enough of Sydney’s empty commitments. And yet she was the one who called to invite me to the wedding.

It was on Saturday, the third Saturday in April, at Sydney’s parents’ house in Connecticut. My brother had hinted on several occasions that her family was rich-rich, but I’d never met them, and I didn’t think anything of it when I read the word estate on their wedding invitations. Sydney had merely said that the ceremony would be held in her parents’ backyard—she failed to mention that this yard included statues, gardens, and a little brook her parents had installed to mark where their property ended and their neighbor’s began. It didn’t surprise me in the slightest that they had just one neighbor, a pediatric surgeon whose father had been the Governor of Connecticut. When I pulled up in front of the house, I considered turning around and skipping their wedding entirely, but then a truck drove up beside me, and someone directed me toward the garages, and I resigned myself to the fact that this was happening. She was going to marry him right in front of me.

My brother didn’t answer his phone, so I walked around the estate, half-expecting to learn that he’d fled the country at the last minute. Someone told me that he was in the back, helping put up the big tent, but when I arrived, six men were working together to drive metal stakes deep into the grass, and my brother was gone. A tall, silver-haired man in a gray button-down shirt took his place, watching the six men with an expression of disbelief and, it seemed, mild resentment. This was his backyard, I realized. His daughter getting married, just two months after getting engaged. When he saw me, his face went blank, and his hands slipped out of his pockets so he could shake mine. “Austin Carver. You’re looking for your brother?”

I nodded. Only then did I realize that Austin wasn’t wearing shoes.

“He’s in the attic. Sydney wanted him to find Something Blue for her.”

Inside, I discovered that Sydney’s dancer friends had arrived en masse not long before me and that the pretty, limber lot of them had camped out in the living room to practice a number the group had prepared for the rehearsal dinner. When I asked if any of them knew where my brother was, a particularly flexible woman rose into an arabesque position and said, very casually, as if it should be obvious, “Ruining Sydney’s life.” This seemed to be the consensus. Finally, one of two piano players pointed vaguely at the stairs, and I left to search the second and third floors. By my count, there were five guestrooms, all but one of them filled with suitcases and garment bags that Sydney’s guests had brought. I had yet to encounter any of my brother’s friends, whose white ties and black dress shoes would’ve given them away immediately. Sydney never dressed up like that unless she had to. When I found her, she was lying on her side with her back to the door, wearing a black tank top and skinny jeans. Her chest rose and fell softly with her breathing, but otherwise she didn’t move.

“Sorry,” I heard my brother say from the attic stairs. “It’s been hectic.”

I nodded into the room. “Should we wake her?”

Something in him seemed to deflate when he saw her. Disappointed, he sat on the edge of the bed and touched her arm gently. “Sydney. Sydney, Gemma’s here.”

And indeed there I was.

Sydney rubbed her eye. “Did you find Mr. Snuffles?” A teddy bear. Her Something Blue.

My brother shook his head. “I can look again later.”

She sat up, apologizing, because she hadn’t meant to sleep so long. “I just had to get away from the music for a while. It was so dreary.” She said all this to me, because I hadn’t been there, but then turned to him, watching his face as she sighed. I shut the door so that her guests couldn’t hear it when he reminded her that it was her idea to have her friend’s band play the wedding, that she was the one who’d insisted on having a less traditional wedding, so she shouldn’t complain. It wasn’t my fight and didn’t strike me as a particularly nasty one, so when he said he was sorry, but babysitting a bunch of drunks wasn’t exactly his idea of a nice wedding, I decided I didn’t need to be there anymore and asked if there was someplace I might shower. I might’ve said it louder than necessary, because Sydney said, “Oh,” then pointed me toward my room. I wouldn’t be sharing.

Once under the spray, it was impossible to picture Sydney and my brother together. Their interactions only minutes before began to warp and ease apart in the steam, as if they’d happened separately, independently, joined only by the efforts of a tired mind working ceaselessly through the night. At some point I stopped moving and just stood there, letting the water cascade over me until I forgot why it was there. My first thought was that it was strange, their haste to be married. He’d only proposed in February, and he’d always wanted a big wedding (the kind you had to plan for months in advance). I knew for a fact that Sydney wasn’t pregnant and was painfully aware of the fact that when I’d last visited them at their brownstone in Brooklyn, Sydney came downstairs, found me in the living room, and stripped in front of the blue light of the television. She’d woken up just as she knelt between my legs and then kissed me gently, hesitantly, awake for perhaps the first time since this all started. I understood her then. I knew she didn’t love him.

I stepped out of the shower, wrapping my hair in a powder blue towel. I paused a moment at the window to feel the cold air emanating from the glass. It was a dark, chilly day in April, and the white folds of the tent were flapping in the breeze. Its stakes had finally been secured, and the hired hands were moving tables around under the fabric. Austin was there, speaking to one of the crewmembers; as I watched, he passed in and out of sight, first entering the frame from the right, and then exiting— still barefoot, and still speaking—alone under the windowsill.

I decided to take my time getting ready for the party. Sydney had said it was going to be a casual dinner, and though I’m sure she didn’t mean for me to ignore my brother’s knock or spend half an hour languishing around in my bra, trying to decide whether to do without it, that was just what I did. I laid my clothes out neatly on my bed, then stood there with the sleeves of my blouse pinched between my fingers. Occasionally I flicked the sleeve around, as if enticing a shy partner out onto the dance floor. When I finally emerged, the house was quiet. I descended from the third floor in a state of waning anticipation, hearing no voices, making no introductions, only listening to the sound of my skirt rubbing against my legs. In the kitchen, I found a woman washing a dish at the sink. She wasn’t thirty, but wore the pinned-back hair and full-length skirt of someone who has longed all her life to be fifty and impossibly elegant. “Oh,” she said. “You must be Gemma.”

I was standing in the doorway, my hand resting on the frame. “Where is everyone?”

“Outside. You hungry?” Her hand guided me to the buffet on the counter, falling easily to the small of back as she described each dish with exceeding care: here, flat iron steak, pan-seared with a Moroccan-inspired spice rub of cumin, ginger, coriander, and clove; there, a peppery roast squash, with not just one but two salads—the one with Israeli couscous and pomegranate and the lesser with the basic arugula and balsamic—with a yogurt mint sauce to cool it all down. It was a little overwhelming, and when I asked if she had made it all herself, she just laughed and said her name was Olivia. “Feel free to help yourself. Hopefully some of it appeals to you.”

Everyone had already eaten. They’d pulled a table up to sit in the light of the porch, and a dozen or more chairs were packed tight into a circle. Some of them were empty. A number of the guests, including Sydney herself, had slipped off their shoes to go exploring in the yard—its cold cold grass and decorated wedding arch. I could hear someone giggling inside the big tent. One of the skinnier boys was sitting on his partner’s lap, resting his cheek on top of her hair. Meanwhile, another girl was slouched deep in her chair, a cigarette hanging idly from each hand as she gazed skyward. My brother sat stiffly in what felt like a corner, worrying a used up wet nap in his hand. His glass stood near the edge of the table, a single puddle of wine lingering over the dark heart of the stem. Olivia was nowhere to be seen.

At last my brother tossed the wet nap onto his empty plate. “You’re late.”

I frowned at the way his foot jittered on his knee. “Are you okay?”

His shoulders jerked. Then he seemed to realize how rude that was and sat up straight. He said, “I’m fine,” shaking his head. But he wasn’t fine. It was like that time in high school, when a girl he didn’t even know smacked him in the face and he spent the entire day walking around in a huff, saying some people and who does that girl think she is—and I just gave him the same look I had then: the “yes, but you don’t have to be so ridiculous about it” look. He recognized this and I think perhaps felt stung by it, but didn’t even begin to relax until Sydney had returned and placed a hand on his shoulder. He shook out a sigh, then told her, “I’m ready for the night to be over.” It was the most honest thing I’d ever heard him say.

With Sydney at the table the guests became suddenly animate. They were all performance artists, I realized, musicians and designers and dancers, like Sydney, who had been lucky enough (or else desperate enough) to find a way of manipulating their art into something that could make money: a former BFA from BU had translated her knack for photographic composition into a job creating layouts at a magazine I had never heard of before. An architect was designing sets for an avant-garde stage production written by a man referred to only as Bruce. And the musicians there that night were the same ones who would play at the wedding, I learned, as I sat quietly and ate. I watched my brother as he interacted with these people. I saw the way he coiled and drew entirely into himself, tense with anxiety and perfectly aware of his inability to be part of the conversation. As they spoke he nodded and hummed and occasionally said yes, but on the rare occasion that he offered something it was only an anecdote or an inconsequential fact gleaned from a news article he’d been reading earlier that day. When one of them made a joke, he laughed like someone who has spent their entire life trying to understand why on Earth something is funny, only to discover absurdly late that what makes the thing funny is simply that it exists. Once, he found such a thing so preposterous that he bent over with his forehead in his hand, laughing and gasping for air. The artists were all amused by this. I found it condescending.

At some point, I began to stare off into space. The porch light had illuminated a perimeter inside of which the million blades of grass stood pale and quivering, like captive animals. If only we could turn off the light, I thought, then their poor souls would have a chance to flee and in the morning we would finally see the darkness underneath. I thought once more of the nights Sydney and I spent together, of opening my eyes and folding back the sheet to find Sydney already there. I couldn’t control her. Her tongue moved, but not in any way that would give pleasure or that was meant to give pleasure, and when I tried to draw her attention to a particular spot, either the angle would shift or the pressure abate, or she’d use her teeth in a way I found dangerous and inspiring. I think part of me has always believed love should be like this—painful and hidden, only making itself known when you least expect it and are unprepared for the damage it can do. Once the pain subsided, I lay back with my eyes closed and my hands folded on my abdomen, enjoying myself. Even after I finished, Sydney worked on me, using broad flat strokes that pushed at my mind and almost lulled me to sleep again.

When it was over, she stretched out beside me and slipped into a deeper, less active sleep. It’s amazing to think now of the calm that descended as soon as her mouth left me. As I lay there I had the experience, not of dread itself, but of knowing that something dreadful was coming and that I’d have to be ready for it when it did. So I got out of bed. I washed my face. Then I returned to Sydney, holding her close and stroking her hair for as long as I could before she walked out on me again. This was the real reason I came to the wedding: because I wanted to be near her, to see her face when she was forced to choose between him and me. I wasn’t expecting Olivia to flirt so much. When she emerged from the giant tent and saw me sitting there at the table, she tucked her face slightly, happily, a smile playing on her lips. She came directly to my side, taking the empty chair beside me. Her hand floated out to tap my empty plate. “Did you like the food?”

I nodded, flicking my eyes to the tent. “What were you doing in there?”

“Communing with the spirits.”

“Oh? I thought you looked like a witch.”

I’m not sure when exactly, but Sydney noticed that Olivia and I were flirting casually and ignoring the other guests at the table. She stared at us, not at all directly or conspicuously but still often enough for me to take pleasure in the thought that she was jealous. And so, I kept talking to Olivia long after she ceased to be interesting and even after the exhaustion set in; I’d been awake, I told her, since six that morning, and wouldn’t last much longer. I brushed my hand sleepily over her thigh, enjoying the tension mounting around us as the others realized what I was doing. After an hour or so, Olivia excused herself to use the restroom. “Don’t disappear.”

When she was gone, my brother fixed me with a look that said: What are you doing?

I soon learned what that was about, through a series of less than subtle questions posed to Sydney about a woman named Kim: where was she and was she still working that eighty-hour-a-week job and when was the last time they got to hang out with the two of them? So Olivia had a girlfriend, and everyone knew about it. My brother flashed me a helpless, almost apologetic look, as if to say that he would’ve told me about Kim sooner, had I given him the chance.

One of the women sitting near me seemed particularly ashamed of the way the exchanges about Kim were handled; she kept smiling at me in this pouty, vulnerable way, as if I’d reminded her of a time when she was in a very similar situation. She tried several times to get my attention, and when I finally allowed it she said, “You two look more alike as the night goes on.”

I glanced at my brother. “Are you sure that’s not just the booze talking?”

My brother and I were nothing alike physically—he was broad, fit, and angular, and often put more care into selecting the proper belt than I did into entire ensembles. But that wasn’t what she meant. “It’s like you’re both constantly biting your tongue.”

This was true. It was part of our polite, Midwestern upbringing. Even when we were kids, hanging out with our friends and skipping school, there was a quiet about us, like the darkness on a clouded night. We often snuck out into the cornfield together, waiting until our mother was fast asleep, then creeping out into our backyard, where the dirt was near black with minerals. In those moments, he was as cold and vigilant as a guard dog, his gaze fixed somewhere in the distance—far enough that any movement in the corn could just as easily have been the drunken fumbling of teenagers as a simple trick of the Iowa night. I can’t remember ever looking him in the eye on our nights in the field. He would acknowledge me only through the fact of his silence and reservation and then dissolve into the corn stalks, his footfalls heavy on the loam.

Once inside the cornfield, there is no other world. Only the endless orderly rows and their unshucked ears standing taller even than your own. Sometimes the stalks will bend as if intent on hearing and keeping and forever secreting away your innermost thoughts and feelings. Whatever you’re willing to give us, it seems to say. Whatever you’re comfortable sharing. But the character of the corn can change in an instant. One moment, it’s as calm as a barn swallow in sleep and the next it can seem to take flight—its heavier stalks whipping around like bats. How could you ever trust a field so fickle? I tried. In the beginning I tried. My brother walked in front of me, aiming a flashlight at the ground, so it would give off as little light as possible; the point was not to see but not to fall. To instead remain as dark and quiet as life so your blood would always be your own. I didn’t understand at first. I told my brother about my friend Marisa. How she fell off her bike one day and that was how it started. Just my kissing the wound to heal it—that was enough for him to pause and half-turn and tell me, “That sort of thing you should keep to yourself; no one’s going to understand it. Not like you do.”

My immediate thought was, Oh—I should’ve known better. He started walking again and at a much less forgiving clip. I watched his silhouette begin to blur into the shadows and thought, Is there something I don’t know about you, brother? I think if I were to ask him that point blank I wouldn’t get a direct answer. He’d probably just shrug and ask me what it was I wanted to know, as if he could think of nothing worth saying, nothing in particular. Sometimes I resented him this ability to shut himself away, to compartmentalize all but the most necessary or inoffensive pieces of his personality, but soon enough I would come to learn his monsters by the shapes and sizes of the boxes that contained them. There was his stiffness. His confusion when confronting the sheer nonsense of a keg party. The unabashed relief on his face when the flap of the wedding tent lifted and Sydney stepped out into the night. He held onto her there as if she were a weapon, some tiny, nimble dagger that fit perfectly into the chink in his armor, protecting him from harm. Looking at them then, they seemed perfect for each other, absolutely perfect. But Sydney’s eyes found me in the dark, and the look on her face struck me like water strikes a stone.

I downed the rest of my wine in one gulp and then sat a moment, thinking how that was a mistake. Finally, I set my wine glass on the table, taking the time to press it back from the edge. I thought of apologizing to my brother, but had no idea for what. So instead I told him I was going to bed, and that would’ve been a clean get-away if I hadn’t stumbled across Olivia in the kitchen. She was on all fours, ineffectually sopping up a spill with a paper towel. Austin stood behind her, a dry sponge in his hand and a pained look on his face. I left them there without a second thought and slept in the next morning. I texted my brother that I was too hungover to come downstairs, then spent the morning feeling snappish and dehydrated, and like I’d been made fun of. I kept thinking about that moment when Sydney glanced from me to Olivia and then back in that way, as if she’d never been so furious. I had hoped she’d visit me in the night.

My brother came to check on me at quarter to eleven. “Our cousins are here.”

After some consideration, I said, “You look like you’re hiding.”

“It’s getting a little crazy out there,” he admitted.

I thought he would say something more: he sat forward in his chair, then sat back; opened his mouth, then closed it. Eventually he stood up and said Sydney wanted us to come down to eat now that her father was making us brunch. It was one of his favorite things, he told me, but when we entered the kitchen, Austin seemed frantic. Not entirely out of his element, but experiencing a kind of mounting frenzy as he scuttled between the refrigerator and the stove, where he had three skillets on the fire and four baking sheets in the oven. He kept saying okay and rubbing his hands together as he asked himself, “What next, what next?” This put my brother on edge. He started to strum his fingers on the counter and sucked in these strained, audible breaths, as if he’d forgotten how to exhale, or that exhaling was a thing. When he fluffed his hair, I called him a prima donna, but all he did was open his mouth and produce the idea of a laugh with three short bursts of air.

Sydney wasn’t in the room for this. She’d been with us, briefly, hovering at my elbow and trying to appear more amused by her father’s antics than she really was; but she had drifted away to speak with her musician friends, who were holding an impromptu jam session in the backyard. When she returned, she tapped me on the arm, asking how I’d slept, and so began a day in which she spoke occasionally to other people, yes, but still focused the vast majority of her attention on me, asking was I hungry, would I like something more to eat, then after brunch was over offering to help with my make-up, my dress, wondering what was I planning to do with my hair, thinking, perhaps, that if she doted on me, I’d crack and try to talk her out of the wedding. But I wasn’t my brother. If she wanted something from me, she’d have to prove it.

My brother monopolized the mirror in her room, so Sydney got dressed in mine. We were alone then, though the door was open and people could, and did, flit in and out, asking if there was something they were supposed to be doing. I made my peace with that. I decided to wait until the last possible moment to slip into my dress (a simple cowl-necked thing that hugged my chest and matched my hair); then, with nothing to do, I watched Sydney get ready. Her dress was beautiful, white and simple and strapless, and her shoes were perfect, but she was having some trouble with her make-up. Twice she tried applying eyeliner, and twice she had to clean away her mistake and start again. When she started shaking her mascara, I said, “You look like you’re having a nervous breakdown.”

“Ha.” She flicked her tongue out to wet her lower lip, having never learned how to bite it. A sound like amazement escaped her as she considered what I’d said. “You’re such a bitch,” she said, sighing and laughing to herself as she lifted her face to the mirror. I snapped my eyes at her, but she didn’t notice. She’d gone almost completely still: her mouth hanging open, her hand with the mascara in it hovering just a little to the right of her eye, but never appearing to move, so that the make-up seemed to be applied only in the mirror realm where her reflection lived. And then?

Then Sydney caught my eye in the mirror and giggled.

I scoffed. “You’re one to talk.”

“I never said I was a nice girl,” she shrugged. “I wasn’t raised in the Heartland.”

“I never met any nice girls in Iowa. Everyone was a disaster.”

Sydney shook her head, leaning into the mirror. “You don’t give anybody slack, do you?”

I didn’t feel any need to answer that. I still had to fix my hair, and without direct access to the mirror there was nothing for me to do but sit on the corner of the bed and work over Sydney’s shoulder. I tried three different hairstyles, first pulling my hair up into a ponytail, then brushing it into a smooth sweep draped over my right shoulder, then braiding it on both sides so that the tails met underneath one of those messy, seemingly unstructured buns my ex-girlfriend used to like. If I had only had the forethought to bring a backless dress, then I could’ve just shaken my hair loose and let it tickle my shoulder blades all through the wedding. I didn’t notice when Sydney finished her make-up but did pause near the end when she asked in a careful voice if I needed help. “No, I like doing it myself.”

She blinked several times, but didn’t take her eyes off of me. “I see.” Then she snapped to attention, tuning into the sounds from below, the comings and goings and discordant melodies of nothing being as you imagined it. Somehow in all of this she was able to distinguish one voice in particular. “Oh,” she said, shooting me a worried look. “Olivia’s here.”

This didn’t bother me in the slightest. “Did she make the cake, too?”

Sydney regarded me carefully and told me, again, that they were having cupcakes.

I began pinning my hair in elaborate fashion. “Cupcakes,” I said aloud. I can’t believe my brother agreed to that. I still can’t believe it. I think back on the preparations for that wedding, on the week spent planning and the hours spent primping and how, in the last minutes before all was said and done, we ran around telling each other that it was really happening, it wasn’t haphazard, it was time, and thinking back on that now, I can only shake my head. What was that? What even happened to us? There are vast swathes of time from which I can remember nothing in particular. Overwhelmingly, the experience of attending my brother’s wedding was one of solitude, and of a vague, unpleasant regret. It seemed so interminable at the time, but when I think back on it now I find only a handful of clear memories.

I try to hold them at bay as long as I can. I sit in a chair and watch my brother fiddle with his tie. I step outside but say hello to no one, only slick two fingers over the nape of my neck, the sweat that must’ve been gathering there for some time, though I hadn’t noticed. It’s a warm, easy day in April. The guests are gliding back and forth between the open bar and the many spheres of conversation rolling aimlessly over the lawn. When will things begin, I wonder, and soon enough an ordained woman settles in under the snapdragons and salvia to say all the necessary words. At the moment they kiss, I’m glancing down at my heel, having momentarily lost my balance after a glass of champagne that put me over my limit. A hand steadies me. Or perhaps reaches out to me in a moment when I seem overcome. But then the touch is gone. And then the ceremony’s over. I have been told that I’m wanted for wedding pictures, though I’m not sure where. My brother and Sydney have ducked behind the tent to get a few shots of them alone, and they take so long to get them just so that I drift off toward the buffet. Sydney has to come grab me when it’s our turn; she says, “Silly, where were you, we’ve been waiting,” and for the first time, I feel grateful to her for the attentiveness she’s shown me all day; without her I wouldn’t know how to behave. Smile, she whispers, and we pull ourselves together long enough to at least seem like a family; but I wonder what we’ll look like when everyone’s gone and there’s no need to pretend.

The after party lasts deep into the night. I realize my brother wasn’t kidding when he said these people don’t practice moderation. The three of us sit together and entertain a rotating group of guests, each of whom asks them how it feels to be married, and, each time, my brother glances at me as if it’s a joke (all of it, the wedding, the cupcakes), as if to say, Can you believe it? Every so often someone asks, “Was he like this when you were kids?” and because I’m drunk I call him my bastard older brother and say I can’t live without him like it’s the sweetest thing in the world. When no one’s paying attention, I tend to space out. I stare at Sydney’s wedding ring. Sometimes I see Olivia carrying dishes back and forth between the kitchen and the tent and I wonder if she’ll take a turn sitting with us, or if she’s avoiding our table because of me. Her girlfriend’s beautiful. Kim. They’re sitting together a few tables away and look happy enough.

I dance alone. I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks. The music here’s good, surprisingly good, and I move the way I like. I keep dancing until my hair shakes loose of its messy bun, until Olivia has gone and taken the threat of her indiscretion with her. By now, the dancing’s devolved into a kind of slow-motion pulse in which bodies seem not to move so much as vibrate in concert with their partners. Up until now, Austin has been dancing somewhat awkwardly with a group of Sydney’s friends who’ve accepted him somehow as the Cool Dad they always wanted; but when the grinding starts in earnest he becomes extremely uncomfortable and has to excuse himself. He doesn’t bother to tell Sydney. She’s too engrossed. She and my brother are moving so gently that they seem almost to be standing still. She has her back to him. Her hands press against his thighs. His eyes are closed, and as I watch, she lifts a hand to his cheek and drags her nails under his ear. Something in his response or his lack of one makes her sigh and gaze out over the dance floor.

She must stare at me a full minute before making eye contact.

I touch her arm and shout, “Are you leaving?”

“Yeah. He’s already asleep.” She pats his cheek roughly, repeatedly.

He’s leaning hard into her as he yawns. His eyes open to a slit. “Is it time?”

“You bet it is. You can barely stand up, mister.” She gives him a hard little peck of a kiss and pats his cheek again, slapping him until he lays his hand over hers; and somehow even this is a sign of affection as they lean hard into each other, content in their drunkenness. It occurs to me: I’ve never seen her relaxed before. Something shifts between us (either in the way I look at her or in how much she enjoys it), because she regards me with a beatific smile; she offers her hands, and when I take them, she peels away from him, asking, “Are you done?” And some other words I don’t hear but which I’m sure qualify the question. “Promise me you’ll stay the night.”

“Oh—is that all?”

This is funny to her. She laughs my name—Gemma, Gemma—as she extends her arms.

“I’m so sweaty,” I warn her, but she hugs me all the same.

The party dissolves quickly then. The musicians pack up, the dance floor clears. Sydney’s father stands on the porch, directing those too drunk to drive inside so they can sleep it off on his living room floor. I drape myself over a chair and feel the crowd part around me. I can hear them go, their voices receding, their cars starting, but I don’t bother to watch it happen. I have my eyes closed and I’m focusing all my senses on my feet as I drag them through the lush late-night grass. It doesn’t frighten me now. The blades are harmless and wet; the yard is empty, and I don’t know where I left my shoes. I try to think: when did I take them off? It takes long minutes to retrace my steps back to that exact moment. I still don’t remember it, really. All I know is: one minute I was up, ambling through the sea of chairs, and the next the back door had slammed and sent my heart racing for safety.

Sydney. She was coming down the stairs.

Her hands danced in the air, her arms swaying like a professional that’s planning to fake a fall in front of their audience. I knew that she’d seen me, and that’s what made me hesitate when I heard my name on her lips. She began to twist, her shoulders moving in ways I didn’t understand while she held one hand remarkably, alarmingly still; when I took it, her dance started to change, adopting a muted character, as if we were riding out a low, quiet wave. I was able to look Sydney in the eye then. She was asleep, I realized: her eyes were wide open, and her body was animated, but she was gone—off in some distant dreamland that undulated like the sea. They must’ve fallen asleep just as soon as they got upstairs. Sydney hadn’t even managed to take off all her clothes—her wedding dress, modest thing that it was, was riding up her thighs.

How long did we dance? Certainly for longer than was decent.

Eventually, my brother came looking for Sydney. He was still wearing his white shirt and polished shoes, but his suit jacket was missing, and he’d already removed his belt. His pants were sagging as he stepped out on the porch, and his face looked as though it had been scrubbed of the possibility of happiness. He said her name softly, plaintively, in a tone I’d never heard before and never heard again. Perhaps he was sleepwalking too, I thought; perhaps we were all sleepwalking and this was just some dark and frightful dream that our minds had conjured to distract us as they sorted through our hearts under the protective blanket of night. He’d been silent for so long that I jumped when he snapped at Sydney to wake up. He strode toward us, catching her right arm with a surprisingly gentle touch, as if he were merely changing the direction of a balloon. It took some coaxing to bring her back. “Syd. Syd. You were at it again.”

He stroked her hair as she turned his face to his. “Was I? That’s not good.”

His hand came to rest on her cheek. He considered her for a long time, looking at her blue eye shadow, her naked shoulders, her slim, graceful figure, as if prepared to let her go if that was what she wanted. He kissed her on the forehead, and then asked, very quietly and very pointedly, if she wanted to keep dancing. I knew even before she shook her head that it was over. That she’d chosen my brother. He’d woken her up in a way I never could, and now she would be his forever. He turned to me then, turned the both of them, as if showing me who she really was and what she really meant to him. Her sleepy eyes. Her sorrowful dances. He wanted me to see. Underneath all the exhaustion and the betrayal, I found the silence we’d shared as kids—that deep, reverberating hollow sounding like the cannons of a grim and distant victory. He said nothing then, only pulled Sydney inside. I stood for a long time after, staring into the emptiness of the door, through which they’d disappeared. It was cold then, and the leaves were rustling with the breeze. I shut my eyes, listening to the night—its great and inimitable roar.

Ruth Joffre’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Nashville ReviewCopper Nickel, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. She’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she lives in Seattle.


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

Follow Us On Social

Masters Review, 2024 © All Rights Reserved